Supporting gay men
Reprinted from "Men's" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (5), p. 38
The days of HIV disease being treated as the only health issue of importance for gay men are over. For a number of years now AIDS, Vancouver has been looking at health and gay men through a broader lens: one that encompasses more than just physical illness and disease and that acknowledges more complete and complex individuals and communities.
In the mid ’90s, AIDS Vancouver’s HIV prevention program, Man to Man, shifted from focusing on how individuals’ behaviours put them at risk for HIV, to also looking at gay men as a group. This shift helped us understand that, as a group, gay men may have common issues that could be addressed by focusing on factors making them vulnerable to HIV disease. Things like homophobia and social status need to be addressed just as much as an individual’s specific behaviours (e.g., whether or not he uses condoms) when doing HIV prevention. So do issues like drug use and mental health. We shifted our name to Gay Men’s Health Programs.
In early 2003, Gay Men’s Health Programs moved into a storefront office space on Davie Street and changed its name once again, this time to Gayway.
Gayway is a health promotion program for gay men, which provides opportunities for the men to share their experiences, skills and resources with other men in order to build healthier communities. The program offers training and support for gay men to enhance or learn skills they can share with the community in the form of workshops and discussion groups. The groups cover a whole range of activities and issues. Some of the groups offered early in 2005 included financial management, goal setting and time management, a writer’s workshop, a book group, a knitting group and a support group for men with sexual addictions.
Gayway also develops educational materials such as pamphlets and brochures that paint the big picture of what health means and provide information to help gay men better understand and address various issues. We also produce a small magazine called Gayze. Four times a year, a group of volunteers put together personal stories, health information and fun facts and images and distribute it throughout Vancouver.
A peer counselling and support program called Coffee Talk is provided via trained volunteers. We offer it face-to-face and over the Internet through local chat rooms. Peer counsellors listen to men talk about whatever they feel like talking about, and information and referrals to other services in the community are provided.
In the last year we’ve developed two health promotion campaigns. The first one was sent out across the country. It looked at the things gay men are already doing in big and small ways to create community and positively impact their health. The other was an HIV prevention campaign focused here in Vancouver that looked at how assumptions some gay men make about the HIV status of their partners can lead to choices that put them or their partners at risk for HIV infection.
But there is still much work to do. Mental health issues in the gay male population are often talked about, but rarely addressed at the community level. The prevalence of depression and anxiety within the gay male population is said to be higher than in the general public. Some explanations suggest homophobia and heterosexism are factors. Things like social and religious discrimination and a lack of family and institutional support are some of the psychosocial causes of depression and anxiety among gay men.
HIV disease can also contribute to depressive illness. Some people see depression in people living with HIV as a reaction to being diagnosed with the infection. Depression can be related to HIV, specific HIV-related disorders, or medication side effects. Gayway encourages men living with HIV to speak openly with their health care practitioners about any symptoms they experience that could lead to an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment of mental health conditions.
Gay men, like everyone else, experience a range of mental health issues. We require mental health services that acknowledge and validate our complete identities and deliver services in environments free of homophobia and discrimination.
Similarly, the gay community needs to work harder to recognize and include gay men with mental health issues as important members of the community. Working together we can continue to create communities that will support all of us in living healthier, more vibrant lives.
About the Author
Phillip is Director of HIV Prevention at AIDS Vancouver and coordinates Gayway, AIDS Vancouver’s gay men’s health program. He has worked in community development and health promotion for over a decade
For more information visit Gayway at 913 Davie Street in Vancouver, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; or check out www.gayway.ca